In April this year the Human Rights Council will hold a ‘Durban Review’ conference in Geneva, in order to “evaluate progress towards the goals set” at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). The 2001 meeting ended in confusion when the Israeli and US delegations walked out, and its impact was largely forgotten when a few days later the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre occurred.
The original WCAR was a disaster in many ways. Originally intended as a means of developing ‘soft law’ regarding racial discrimination, the meeting quickly descended into farcical anti-semitic declarations which denounced Israel as an apartheid state, compared the occupation of Palestine to the Holocaust, and equated Zionism with racism. In the NGO forum, where so-called anti-racist NGOs could make their views heard, Arab groups sold copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the well known anti-semitic tract from the 19th century, and flyers were distributed citing the lack of a State of Israel as being a probable benefit had Hitler ‘won’. (See Bayefsky, “The UN World Conference Against Racism”, 96 Am. Soc’y Int’l L. Proc. 67 (2002).) Documents for the final declaration drafted by Iran and Arab States singled out Israel for special criticism and made mention of none of the States around the world where racism and racial discrimination are commonplace. Eventually, the Israeli and US delegations believed they had no alternative but to leave, and various European States rescued the conference and managed to tone down its virulence.
The Obama administration apparently feels even more strongly about the issue than its predecessor did: Along with Canada and Israel, it is already planning to boycott the forthcoming review conference, fully aware that it is likely to become another anti-semitic debacle rather than a genuine attempt to confront racial discrimination.
In the meantime institutional bias against Israel in the UN’s human rights system seems to have deepened. In June 2007 the UN Human Rights Council almost unanimously voted to make Israel a permanent issue on its agenda – the only State whose human rights record is to be discussed at every meeting of the Council. Even Ban Ki-Moon expressed his concern at “the council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world”; a US representative rather more accurately summed up the decision as “pathological”. It was however unsurprising to UN-watchers, who are well aware of Israel’s pariah status in that organization. Israel is, for example, the only country which is not a member of a UN Regional Group, and therefore the only State whose representatives cannot be elected to the ECOSOC Council or the Human Rights Council, among other bodies.
In light of recent events in Gaza the Durban Review Conference is likely to make especially interesting viewing. Whatever ‘soft law’ develops will undoubtedly be shrouded in political infighting: a depressing prospect, but it is to be hoped that the EU members and other influential States will follow the US and Canada’s lead and draw attention to this serious problem.